Art After Modernism-Fall Semester 2013

Desire: One Artist’s Wanting for the ‘Cosmic I’

      While delving into the readings listed below, I found myself wanting. For what I could not define, which I can loosely attribute to having taken seven art history classes as an undergraduate, finding that the dotted lines always overlap, and discovering time and time again that in the contemporary art world nothing much is really new. I might sound like I have a bit of a desiccated attitude, but believe me I do not. Some may say I appear as if I am indifferent about art in history. Again, any such thoughts are far from my mind. It is simply that I recognize the fact that we, all of us, approach art, the making of art, and the writing about art from inside the human condition. To me, the only thing that makes anything new about art is that it arises from the unique experience of the individual first, then reaches out from there into world totality or as some might believe, the universe.  This is not to say that I lack excitement about art because very frequently, wow, I am delighted and jazzed about what I discover. Yet I am always wanting even after a satisfying exploration of artworks in a fabulous exhibition or reading interesting writings about art in our world history; I am always left with feelings that are hard to define and that seem like something akin to desire.

After reading about vitalism (indeterminacy) as a form of anti-mechanistic thought (determinacy-as viewed in Modernist society?) and dualism, which I perceive as grappling between the two, here I find myself trying to define my ongoing feelings of desire with regards to being an individual witnessing art and creating art in our world. In Valerie Hellstein’s essay, “The Cage-iness of Abstract Expressionism”, she wrote, “Whitman’s ‘cosmic I’ is a vitalist self. It suggests an individual’s deeply felt connection to nature, to the cosmos, and to all that reside in it; it is not an isolated self. Significantly, when Whitman says ‘I,’ he also says ‘you’ because the Whitmanian self is inherently social. In the poem ‘Song of Myself,’ he presents the self continuously wrapped in the other…Self-definition…depends on, is involved with, others. This inherent connectedness of individuals and the breaking down of binaries becomes the condition for Whitman’s democracy.”  Whitman’s ideas expressed in her essay about equality, emergence, and man’s connection with nature are also beautifully expressed in his book of poems, Leaves of Grass (1855). As a testament to the universality and longevity of his sentiments, some of our revered poets, such as Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes, felt a kinship with Whitman or uniquely modeled their works from within the spirit of his ideals. Pound whose identity was challenged against the great poet’s legacy eventually wrote during his incarceration at St Elizabeth’s Hospital, “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman–/I have detested you long enough”.[1] And too, Hughes acknowledged his contributions to the literature of mankind by writing, “Whitman’s ‘I’ is…the cosmic ‘I’ of all peoples who seek freedom, decency, and dignity, friendship and equality between individuals and races all over the world…I, too, sing America.”[2] All three of these poets felt and suffered desire, and used their unique forms of written and spoken language to express their wishes, however at times misunderstood (especially in the case of Pound), for a breaking down of barriers, as expressions crafted toward the greater good of mankind.

If simply stated, desire means to hope for an outcome, then I am on board with that definition for my own delving of answers and can easily insert it as an overarching notion into the exploratory actions in art, ways of living and thinking, and the communing of artists/intellectuals at Black Mountain College and The Club.  I was, at first, very concerned that John Cage described vitilist thought as “disinterestedness” and desire as a “nonimposition”, but it makes sense when coupled with his ideas expressed through the lens of Zen about oneness and acceptance and his statement in “Lecture on Something”, “It all goes together and doesn’t require that we try to improve it or feel our inferiority or superiority to it.”[3] Perhaps, my quest to put a finger on my feelings of desire can be partially summed in Hellstein’s statement about Cage’s thoughts regarding the detrimental nature of the categorizations of art and action, which I view as a compelling response to the temperament and outcomes of what was/is happening in our world, “For Cage, when art is understood as action, art and life are no longer separate.”[4] Perhaps one can view this as a complete acceptance of truth and its consequences.

But still, I hold back from this writing wanting to feel that my personal desire is separate, uniquely my own however I continue to not be able to wholly understand it. And I am left wondering how my “cosmic I” would experience Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-1951). I can easily imagine myself basking in its radiating wash of red color reflected upon my body. I can see myself turning toward anyone standing next to me, within that color field of red or separated by any one of the vibrating vertical lines, and smiling from inside the space of myself and from a place of universal understanding of our shared human existence. Perhaps it is all right to never fully understand my desire, but to always acknowledge it, to always be wanting.

[1] Roberts, Kim. “Whitman in Memory and Influence”, Beltway: A Poetry Quarterly. Web.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hellstein, Valerie. “The Cage-iness of Abstract Expressionism”. Art in America (forthcoming, Spring 2014).

[4] Ibid.


  • Valerie Hellstein. “The Cage-iness of Abstract Expressionism”, Art in America (forthcoming Spring 2014). PDF.
  • Kim Roberts. “Whitman in Memory and Influence”, Beltway: A Poetry Quarterly.Pp. 4. Web.
  • W.J.T. Mitchell. “What Do Pictures Want?”. What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2005. Print.

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